Grapes of Godly Wrath

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Image retrieved from on October 9th, 2014.
Image retrieved from on October 10th, 2014

The making of even simple wine by simple peasants was dependent upon a degree of peace and calm that was rare in those troubled times [350-730 A.D.]. On the other hand, most of the conquering Barbarians found even the least sophisticated wine more to their taste than cruder forms of ethnic alcohol; in the north beer was made without hops which meant that it had to be brewed often as it did not keep well, and mead was made from honey. The Muslims did not, officially, drink any form of alcohol, stimulants having been banned by the Prophet, but the Vikings had a general genius for absorbing the culture of those they conquered, often because the conquered outnumbered them by several dozens to one. So wine making continued in all the lands that had previously made wine before the arrival of the Vikings. They even called Newfoundland Vinland, or land of the vine, but only, presumably, in contrasts to Greenland, since no modern has ever found it possible to make wine in Newfoundland.
All over Europe deals were struck between new masters and native peasants with wine-making skills, just as there had been many other deals made between military victors and skilled peasants who grew grain, made harness or were blacksmiths. The relationship may have started as the classic connection between master and slave, but it developed into the feudal system, best established in the West in France. Here, nearly every one had a feudal lord, with five or six levels of lordship. The ultimate lord, often a king, called on dukes and earls to pay rent for land with feudal dues, providing the services of a fixed number of people as annual feus for occupying land. The provincial lord then demanded service of his own tenants-in-cheif, and they in turn would claim feus of humbler tenants, and so on down to the serfs at the bottom of the pyramid. Serfs could demand protection in exchange for labour for so many days a week or for the military services of the younger, more athletic and more skilled among them.
Serfs were attached to the land, not to masters as were slaves. Whilst a slave could be bought and sold like a horse or a cow, a serf could not be sold away from the land. When the land was sold or otherwise changed ownership, the serf went with the land to its new owner. A good master did not unduly exploit his serfs because, apart form any charitable concern, the long-term value of land depended upon the welfare of the serfs attached. Empty land without labour was of little or no value. So serfs were usually better treated than slaves and had the right to work their own land for so many days a week or so many weeks in the year.
Nevertheless, the lord's grain was usually sown first, the lord's corn fields tended to have fewer weeds, and the lord's harvest was more often than not gathered at an optimum time. The lord (or his sons) was said to exploit the droit de seigneur, an imagined right to impregnate any woman within his feudal curtilage. But there was a much more important element in the relationship of serf to lord. A lord might well regard serfs as children, even if they were biologically unrelated. This is exemplified within living memory within some Highland clans. The laird, if living amongst his own, might regard the welfare, education and advancement of his clansmen as his responsibility as much as if they had been his biological children. The same sometimes applied in feudal times, even if it meant that lords (and their villages) lost the services of the cleverer young male serfs, who might go off to be trained as priests, the only people in the Middle Ages guaranteed to be literate.
To train for the priesthood was, of course, a prime means of worldly advancement for the brighter sons of every class (even of the highest noble classes) in the early Middle Ages, the only way to guarantee an education being to join the Church. Priests in the West were meant to be celibate and to die without heirs or any material wealth to pass on when they left this world. The original philosophic reasons for the vow of celibacy were to prevent any tendency for clerics to be worldly. So it was a curious fact that all those who could read and write (nearly all clerics) were unable legally to pass on their genes to another generation. Put another way the genes of those able to read and write were snuffed out in every generation without descendants.
Serfs bound to manors, abbeys and monasteries laboured in the vineyards attached to the great houses: at first these were wholly clerical; only later were there lay vineyards. The circumstance that the Christian Church held that bread and wine were a central feature of the Faith is essential to the history of both wheat and wine. The most important Roman catholic ceremony, the mass, made Western Europeans the great vintners of the world, even if some of the best wine today is made by non-clerical, post-Christian people in the Neo-Europes of California, Chile, Australia and New Zealand.
There were and are, of course, monastic foundations in other religions – there are Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim monasteries. But as from the foundation of the great Christian monasteries, starting with Monte Cassino, between Rome and Naples, in 529, just over a century after the Fall of Rome in 410, monks became the conservators, practitioners and teachers of the skills of husbandry. In a nearly entirely agricultural age, monasteries held the essential key to human survival, a sufficiency of food to eat, second only in importance to an absence of threat to life and limb.
It is arguable that with out the monasteries, the art of husbandry of fields, gardens, orchards and vineyards would have been lost in Western Europe. None of the new militarily successful but savage tribes that displaced Romans and Romanized natives had any of the necessary skills or expertise to make wine, let alone good wine. Monks carried on the practice of selecting, growing, picking and crushing grapes to make wine. Far more than laymen, they held the whole future of wine (as well as of all other forms of agricultural husbandry in their hands. For more than 500 years after St. Benedict founded Monte Cassino, it was monks who transmitted the arts that Greeks and Romans had developed to grow grapes and to make wine. After AD 1000, however, some of the laity commercialized wine. By the twelfth century the Bordeaux region, for example, was full of lay growers, makers and exporters of wine, and an important sea born trade began with Bristol and London.
The ships were usually manned by native Gascons and they sailed as far north as Antwerp, beyond which port the Hansa merchants ruled the waves of the northern North Sea and the Baltic. Since the Millennium Year of 1000, trade had accelerated through Europe, as a few wise men recognized that trade could bring far greater wealth than booty won in war. The Alpine routes enabled Burgundian or Rhenish wines to be sold in Venice and to be exchanged for pepper, which had arrived by pack-animal, ship and mule-train from Southern India. Wool and cloth from England and Flanders were one part of the trade trio of wine, salt and wool, and it was only wool and wool-cloth exports that allowed the English to import as much French wine as they did. Even though there were more than forty vineyards listed in England in the Domesday Book of 1087, the Norman tax-census of the land they had conquered, no one today knows anything of the quality of the English Domesday wines, but though the climate was probably warmer then, it is likely that most northern vineyards only produced sacramental wines for Church use.

pp. 78-81 of Seeds of Wealth by Henry Hobhouse (2005)

monk tasting wine